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Are the eggs on your plate free-range?

From the print edition

Jenny Brown slipped a piece of notebook paper onto the table. 

The 8-1/2 by 11-inch rectangle is the size of home for some egg-laying hens, she explained. Most factory-farmed chickens are kept cramped and constrained, and the discomfort is unmistakable.  

The chickens struggle to turn around. They can’t lift their wings. They like to lay eggs in privacy instead of in the same room as dozens of other chickens. And hens enjoy pecking at objects at their leisure, but because of the cages’ constraints, they end up attacking each other.

“They’re unable to express their natural behavior and it makes them feel stressed out,” Brown said, adding that scientific tests have confirmed this.

Brown, Costa Rica’s representative for Humane Society International, received the go-ahead six months ago to study the availability of cage-free, or free-range, eggs in Costa Rica. Part of her mission is to convince Costa Rican restaurants and hotels, especially in the tourism sector or in expat communities, to switch from factory-farmed chickens to cage-free eggs. The goal is not to convince all of the ubiquitous Costa Rican sodas – small mom-and-pop restaurants serving traditional Tico fare – to make the shift, but rather to focus on businesses that are more likely to have greater demand.

The trend toward free-range eggs received a huge boost in publicity last month. Burger King, one of the world’s largest fast-food chains, announced that 100 percent of its U.S. restaurants would serve cage-free eggs by 2017. The burger-makers – who use hundreds of millions of eggs per year – become the latest and largest egg users to announce the change. Wal-Mart, Costco and Unilever (owners of Hellmann’s mayonnaise), also produce 100 percent cage-free eggs, among others. 

Due to momentum in recent years, the Humane Society of the United States decided to push cage-free eggs abroad. The organization, which played a large role in swaying Burger King to go cage-free, selected four locations to promote the program. 

Humane Society International initiated the agenda in the populous countries of Brazil, India and Mexico, and in tiny Costa Rica.

Cynthia Dent, regional director of Humane Society International, said Costa Rica was selected due to its health-conscientious reputation. The country attracts two million tourists a year, and many come from the U.S. and Europe, two countries leading the upswing in interest in cage-free eggs. 

Here in Costa Rica, Dent said, a movement toward more health-conscientious diets is taking shape. Two major egg-producers, Avícola Huevo Criollo and La Yema Dorada, raise a limited number of cage-free chickens, but it’s a hard sell for companies, as many Costa Rican residents remain unaware of huevos de pastoreo (free-range eggs), and don’t understand the logic behind it due to lack of promotion.

Another complication for Humane Society International is that the country lacks a certification process for cruelty-free food products. Vendors at local farmers markets sell what they say are cage-free eggs, but there’s no inspection outside of the Humane Society’s program. Still, the fact that a market exists in Costa Rica for these eggs is encouraging, she said.

“We don’t have the numbers behind it,” Dent said. “That’s the problem, nobody has numbers behind it. But that said, there’s something important happening about people thinking about what they’re eating, and that just sort of gave us a green light to implement this.”

The list of places with cage-free eggs remains small and incomplete. Brown tackles the one-person operation of finding places that have cage-free farms. Even while she finds more restaurants and hotels interested in switching to products from naturally raised chickens, a concern is that supply from producers is limited. 

A mitigating factor is that a carton of 18 cage-free eggs costs about 60 cents more than factory-farmed eggs, Brown said. In the U.S., a carton would cost at least $1 more.

The cage-free sites she’s discovered so far are on the Nicoya Peninsula in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, in Puerto Viejo on the southern Caribbean coast and in most vegetarian restaurants in the Central Valley (the ones that are not vegan, which do not use eggs at all).

Several supermarkets carry cage-free eggs made by manufacturers. Wal-Mart has its own store brand of the eggs. Automercado and Perimercado also offer free-range eggs (from companies Avícola Huevo Criollo and La Yema Dorada, respectively).

Eggs laid by hens allowed to roam free do not have any additional nutritional benefits, studies show. Nevertheless, consumers of cage-free eggs note one qualitative difference: “People tell me they taste better,” said farmer Alfredo Alfaro, who runs a small free-range farm in Nicoya. He sells his eggs to sodas and restaurants in towns on the peninsula’s southern tip, a tourist hot spot.

 In Puerto Viejo, Tom Franklin runs Bread and Chocolate, a popular bakery and restaurant that uses some 300 eggs a week. His eggs arrive from cage-free farms at two locations in the Caribbean province of Talamanca.

“I’m always interested in buying the most local stuff I can, and the most organic stuff,” Franklin said. 

In the capital, the eatery Oasis chose to switch to cage-free eggs after Brown talked to owner Stephanie McNeil about the practice. 

“Truthfully, we were not using them not because it is difficult, we didn’t do it because we didn’t know about it,” McNeil said.

The menu at Oasis emphasizes healthy foods, with fish and chicken, but no red meats. The dessert options include egg-heavy delectable like tiramisu and coconut flan. New menus announcing that these items are made with cage-free eggs are on the way.

Brown said that’s been one of her most befuddling discoveries: Even restaurants that always have used free-range eggs don’t mention it on their menus. She explains to owners that there are business benefits to telling customers menu items are made with cage-free eggs.

“[Customers] don’t know that they’re buying what we consider a higher quality product [with a] higher level of animal treatment,” Brown said. “Once [customers] get that, [they] start talking to their friends about it. And we want that word of mouth.”

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